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Are You Limiting Your Potential?

Interview with Shawn Achor

When it comes to realizing your potential, is this primarily a solo and competitive endeavor or is your ability to connect with others the secret to your success? In a world where we’re often judged for our individual attributes and achievements, we often mistakenly come to believe that if we can just work harder, faster, smarter then we’ll achieve our highest potential. But studies have found that in an increasingly connected world, our success almost entirely depends on our ability to work well with others.

For example, Google’s five-year study into what contributes to their most effective teams, found that it isn’t a set of ‘perfect performers’, but instead it’s team member’s commitment to prioritize social connections and create a culture of psychological safety where you can speak up, admit mistakes and have honest conversations without feeling you risk being judged or blamed.

“Rather than survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the best fit within your ecosystem,” explained Shawn Achor, author of Big Potential when I interviewed him recently. “And when you work to help others be more successful, you take the invisible cap off your own success.”

Shawn suggests that when you solely focus on pursuing your own success at the expense of others, you limit what you can achieve and only reach your small potential. For example, one study found that if you’re by yourself looking at a hill you need to climb your brain perceives it to be 10 – 20 percent steeper, then if you were standing next to someone who was going to climb it with you. And in the same way, if you’re facing challenges at work or worried about outcomes, the mountains appear so much bigger if you’re alone in the process, rather than when you’re sharing the difficulties with others.  

“Big potential doesn’t mean that you can’t be a superstar,” said Shawn. “You just can’t be a superstar alone.”

So how can you realize your big potential?

Shawn explains that people achieve their big potential when over time they pursue their strengths alongside others and look for ways to enhance the people and systems around them. This creates a virtuous cycle – a positive feedback loop – that generates increasing resources, energy, and experiences that can help make us and others better.    

He suggests that cultivating this virtuous cycle consists of five stages, which he calls the SEEDS of big potential:

  • Surround yourself with others who can inspire and bring out the best in you by developing a network that includes positive influencers, those with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds, and those with whom you can create reciprocal giving bonds. Look for what you can do each day to connect with others in positive ways. It might be starting conversations with something that’s positive, to encourage those around you to make those same choices as well. Intentionally praising and supporting what other people are doing can inspire others to praise and talk about the good. It’s about taking small steps to positive changes. For example, when one company introduced a “no coffee cups at desk” policy so that they could synchronize coffee breaks and be together, profits increased by fifteen million dollars, and employee satisfaction by fifteen percent.
  • Expand yours and others’ power by recognizing that you can lead from any seat, and reward progress towards positive change. Don’t wait to be given a leadership role, know that you can create positive changes from any role in an organization and start finding ways you can make a positive difference for others. Then be sure to track and celebrate your progress in order to sustain the changes you’re creating.
  • Enhance other’s potential by spotlighting and praising what’s going well, taking care to avoid comparing and complimenting at the expense of others. Try to avoid using comparison praise, such as “You’re the best salesperson we had” or “You’re the fastest person on the team.” Instead, praising their strengths without diminishing other people can help enhance without feeling a sense of competition. Try writing a two-minute positive email to praise or writing a thank-you note.
  • While you may not be able to control the negative influences that impact on your life or workplace, you can defend yourself against them and becoming more resilient by adopting a growth mindset, reframing your stress, or tuning out of negativity. For example, studies have found that people who watch just three minutes of negative news in the morning are 27 percent more likely to report their day as unhappy six to eight hours later. When your mood is toxic your potential suffers as you begin to feel overwhelmed and helpless to lift up others or ourselves.
  • Sustain your gains by sharing and celebrating success stories. Make time in your meetings for each person to say what they are grateful for. While it may appear ‘soft,’ and a distraction from your more important decisions, over time, it can deepen your social bonds and connections with others. For example, a team within a trauma hospital – who make life or death decisions about resource allocation – tried this day after day, and then two years after they started this practice a mass shooting nearby meant that every victim came to their hospital. They realized that their gratitude practice allowed them not just to work together, but also gave them a more profound sense of experiencing life together. Another team at a call center took five minutes out of each day to check in with each other about the good things happening in their lives. Rather than see a decrease in profits – from the time off their phones – there was a fifty percent increase in the bottom line revenues.

What can you do to enhance the performance of others and discover your big potential? 

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